The Secret To A Useful Product Roadmap Is Keeping It Alive

3 Simple Strategies For Maintaining “Living” Roadmaps

Jeff Bezos said “Be stubborn on the vision, flexible on the details” (Photo: Matt Howard)

roduct roadmaps are foundational to every product strategy. When used properly, they inspire innovation, empower autonomy amongst teams and help organisations to deliver on their high-level strategic business plan.

Over the past decade, I’ve been exposed to a number of roadmaps. In each instance, they’ve taken on different formats, played different purposes and served different consumers (eg. customers, executives, sales, marketing, engineering and customer support). However, there was a common trend which I observed across all the roadmaps. There would always be a huge effort to create the roadmap for the upcoming year. When the new year started, the roadmap would remain unchanged regardless if there was one or more changes in direction made throughout the year. Some roadmaps often became “dust collectors”.

“No roadmap survives contact with reality”

“No roadmap survives contact with reality” is a common product saying for many years now. As we have shifted away from waterfall to agile and lean product development practices, the way in which we interact with and utilise our product roadmaps must also evolve and adapt to the ever-increasing pace of change at which we develop and launch products today. The shorter and more frequent cycles of product iterations means that we’re able to ship value to customers more frequently, learn at a quicker rate and thus a wealth of insights and knowledge is built. This should be evaluated against the company’s strategic direction and plan. Thus, the product roadmap.

It is a common misconception that we can create a product roadmap and “be done” with it until the next year. But today more than ever, roadmaps need to be a “living” tool which requires organisations to use it regularly. The pre-requisite for regular use is that the roadmap needs to always be up-to-date. In this article, I’m going to focus on the usage of a roadmap — “keeping it alive”. Additionally, I’m going to share some strategies that both organisations and its teams can apply in order to build better habits around using a roadmap regularly. By doing this, I humbly hope that after reading this you’ll be able to keep your roadmap alive and accelerate the innovation and value delivered by your teams.

What is a product roadmap

Whether you’re a startup or an established business, a good product roadmap rallies an organisation around common goals and priorities. It helps organisations to focus on delivering value to it’s customers, embracing learning as part of the product development process and delivering outcomes over outputs. Additionally, a roadmap acts as a strategic communication tool. For example, its useful for making trade-offs to ensure that we’re always spending our efforts on the most important things, as well as serving as a conversation starter with customers to verify that the problems to be solved meets your market’s needs.

Although a roadmap come in a variety of sizes and formats (eg. Excel spreadsheet, Trello board, Slide deck, etc.), they should contain five core elements.

  1. Product Vision: Describes “the why”, eg. the purpose of creating your product, what it aims to achieve and which change it should bring about.
  2. Business Objectives: A set of qualitative goals that when combined help an organisation to realised its product vision. Each objective should tie back to the vision. OKRs are a common way to define measurable business objectives so we can measure progress towards meeting the defined objectives.
  3. Timeframes: To communicate broad timings (eg. Q1 2022) and the sequence of priorities rather than a specific date commitment.
  4. Themes: High-level customer or system needs. Each theme should tie back to one or more business objectives.
  5. Disclaimer: Explicitly communicates that roadmap changes are possible and likely, hence protects you from appearing to break promises.

Once you have a first draft of these core components, its important to start seeking alignment and buy-in from key stakeholders. This is a vital aspect of the roadmap creation process as it encourages the discussions that need to be had with the relevant consumers. When you have final product roadmap completed, the next step is to present and share the product roadmap across the organisation so that everyone is excited about what’s coming. This visibility provides an opportunity for everyone to contribute and serve a purpose in the direction ahead.

This is only a basic overview of product roadmaps. There are different types of roadmaps which vary in the level of details depending on the audience. For example, engineering is interested in understanding the timing, features and dependencies where as executives are interested in what and when benefit will be delivered.

Next, let’s take a closer look at why a a “living” roadmap is critical to an organisation’s ability to deliver value.

Why you need a “living” roadmap

The world of product development is a fast-paced, highly uncertain and constantly changing. Throughout each phase of the product development process, there are continuous learnings from new insights and discoveries of unknown unknowns. For these two reasons alone, a product roadmap needs to reflect and communicate the latest information around the business’ goals, priorities, what value is being expected to deliver and high-level timeframes. This is what I would define to be a “living” roadmap. Without this, organisations risk spending time and money on initiatives that will not move the needle and deliver value to their customers and shareholders.

From experience, there are the three key benefits for maintaining a “living” roadmap.

Autonomy

Empowering teams to make their own decisions, not just at the top level (eg. whether or not to build a certain feature) but also at a “deeper level” such as an engineer choosing which technology to use when is implementing a solution.

Teams are self-motivated to solve problems because the roadmap communicates the direction and “the why” for their work rather a list of specific pre-defined solutions that need to be implemented.

Informed Decisions

A living product roadmap provides us a guardrail and context when reviewing upcoming decisions against the top priorities. It is useful when evaluating whether or not we should tackle a new problem that arise and provides an anchor for making trade-offs. It also helps us to reconsider the order and priority of problems we’re looking to solve. This enables us to move the needle closer to achieving the business’ strategic plan.

Reality Check

The world around us is constantly changing and continues to do so as we build products. Elements of a roadmap help us to navigate an ambiguous, uncertain and often complex environment. The roadmap itself also serves as a communication tool to solicit feedback from existing and potential customers.

Now, I’d like to share some strategies that have worked well for me in the past when it came to keeping a product roadmap alive. My desire is that you’re able to walk away from reading this article with some actionable strategies which can be easily applied tomorrow.

How to keep your roadmap alive

The secret to maintaining a living roadmap is to build behaviours around roadmap’s usage “that are repeated regularly and tend to occur subconsciously”. Wikipedia calls this a habit.

Here are three proven strategies from my experience in building better roadmap usage habits.

Strategy 1: Make your roadmap visible

I previously worked with a company that was new to both user experience design and working in a cross-functional team product-first model. During a discovery, I created rapid low-fidelity prototypes and printed them out. Intentionally, I posted these print outs on the wall just outside the board room where there was high foot traffic so that engineering, product, customer service, marketing and design would take notice. The result was increased internal interest, collaboration and communication about the problem being solved, how it might be solved and what value would be delivered by solving it. Most importantly, it encouraged a shared view and understanding of the direction ahead.

Making the product roadmap and it’s information visible like the wireframes above is fundamental to awareness and alignment about the business’ strategic direction and plan. Make the roadmap visible in a place or beside something you look at daily, such as in a pinned browser tab next to your email or calendar browser tab. This way its always in your face and just a click away.

Strategy 2: Schedule regular reviews

When it comes to being consistent with working out, we all know how challenging that can be. Personally, it was a challenge for me because I often let my emotions get in the way of convincing me why I cannot or might not feel like working out. However I decided to block time out in the week for workouts and my workouts shifted from effortful to effortless. I picked a specific time of day and days of the week which I would commit to doing the work out and set up a repeating calendar reminder. Also, I mentally set a default to running outdoors if I couldn’t decide when my reminder to work out when off. Twelve years later, this strategy has never failed me.

When it comes to product roadmaps, this same strategy can also be applied. Identify the members who need to be apart of your recurring roadmap reviews, choose the frequency (eg. weekly, biweekly, monthly) and send out a calendar invite. By having a dedicated, recurring time slot, this ensures that you and your team have time to focus on the product strategy rather than getting caught up in the pressures of delivery. New request and urgent fixes constantly come up during the product development life cycle. Priorities can also change so we need to ensure there is dedicated time to review and revise the roadmap accordingly.

Strategy 3: Make it easy to review and update

There are two parts to this strategy and they can be actioned independently. The first is to start small and the second is to automate your habits.

James Clear said “When you start a new habit, it should take less than 2 minutes to do”. He calls this the “Two-Minute Rule”. If using your product roadmaps regularly is a new habit, start small with your first roadmap review. For example, review the upcoming quarter in your roadmap. What problems are we solving in the next quarter? Are there any new requests or urgent fixes that have come up that need to be prioritised against the existing problems that we’re looking to solve in the next quarter? If yes, are they more or less important? If more important, what trade-offs need to be made? If less important, create a parking lot to track the items that do not make it onto the roadmap for now.

Do the impossible

Francis of Assisi said “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

Before reading this article, it may have been a struggle to revive your product roadmap. But now you know the secret to keeping your roadmap useful and there’s no excuse except to give it a try.

Simply, pick the first strategy and just start putting it into practice. You’ll instantly be one step closer to building better roadmap habits, whether its noticing that your roadmap doesn’t match reality or there’s time dedicating to reviewing your product roadmap every week. When you feel comfortable, try the next strategy. Eventually, it will become apart of your every work day as an unconscious, effortless action.

My aspiration is that the three strategies that I’ve shared above will help you and your teams to gain or regain value from using “living” product roadmaps. Building better habits around keeping the product roadmap alive will equip your teams to do the impossible!

Got questions, feedback or thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Obsessed with technology, products & people | Founder of Interesting By Default | Director of Product at Cognizant